Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

First sermon of the year - Epiphany

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Happy 2014! How is it going so far? Did you stay up to watch the ball drop? Or did you turn in early, confident that the New Year would arrive when you woke up?

Are you where you thought you would be one year ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Is your life in the shape that you expected it to be, or has the dawn of 2014 found you on a road that you did not expect to be traveling? Did you wake up one day and – bang! - find that the ball had dropped and a new day had dawned, and everything you thought you had planned went straight out the window?

Tomorrow is the twelfth day of Christmas, or the celebration of what Christians around the world call the day of Epiphany. The day of Epiphany is when the light of the star rested on the place where Jesus was, where the wise men were able to find him, which we are celebrating today. While the rest of the world has already finished up its after-Christmas sales and New Year’s parties, are cleaning up and putting away the Christmas lights and decorations, today we are observing the final element to the Christmas story.  Today we too pay homage to a God who so often comes into our world as a blazing light, surprising us in our darkness, and changing our lives forever.

I think God must have been like this from the very beginning, when God created light to shine out in the dark universe. Just one little sentence, “Let there be light,” changed the entire universe, revealing the mystery of creation for all time. Darkness would no longer reign. The world would never be the same again.

I sort of makes me think of the Big Bang theory. Actually, I don’t mean the scientific theory that states that the creation of the universe came from the explosion of everything pressed into one infinitely small space. I’m thinking of my husband’s favorite show, The Big Bang theory, about a group of super-intelligent but super-socially awkward guys whose lives are completely changed when a beautiful and blond actress-wannabe moves into the apartment next door. One minute, experimental physicist Leonard and theoretical scientist Sheldon are strolling up the stairs to the apartment they share and – bang! – they meet their new neighbor Penny. And from this one chance encounter, instead of a universe, a wildly successful seven season television sitcom is born.

Fortunately for CBS, sometimes unfortunately for us, big bangs seem to be how God works. One minute we are going along in life, traveling the path that we think we have mapped out for us, when we have our own personal Big Bang moments. It can happen to anyone, at any time.
Take King Herod, for example. He seemed to have everything going for him – the support of Rome, wealth from cruelly taxing his own people, political security from murdering members of his own family, a legacy in architectural grandeur, religious influence by following Judaism only when he felt like it.  This man Rome named “King of the Jews” had it pretty good.

And then one day, which dawned just like any other day, he receives some unexpected and unwanted visitors.

There were foreigners, wise men, wandering in Jerusalem, and they were asking for the King of the Jews. But they weren’t looking for Herod.

Take these wise men, as well. They had left positions of esteem and influence in their native countries to make a long and perilous journey, thousands of years before the ease of cars and airplanes. These well-educated and well-respected scholars, the experimental physicists and theoretical scientists of their age, left everything familiar to follow a star that would take them to worship a newborn king in a foreign land.
Jesus was a Big Bang moment for both King Herod and the wise men, but their reactions could not have been more different. Herod, and all Jerusalem, were terrified at the news of the birth of this new King. For them, darkness and preserving their own power were more desirable and convenient, so the news of the arrival of God’s light on earth struck fear into their hearts.

For the wise men, the announcement drew them far out of their comfort zones, but at the same time compelled them to follow a divine star to a land far away to worship this king of the Jews.

In T.S. Eliot’s famous poem called “The Journey of the Magi”, Eliot imagines one them recounting his harrowing trek many years later. This wise man wonders: “were we lead all that way for birth or death? There was a birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death, but had thought that they were different; this birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.” We might easily imagine that for them, and for the whole world, life would never be the same.

A ball of light drops and the world calls it the New Year. We make resolutions and later break them. We make plans and have visions of the future that don’t always turn out as we expect them to. We, like the wise men of old, travel by a road different than the one we thought we would be traveling. Life changes after an encounter with the light of Christ.

Most of us I think can speak from experience about the big bangs and the little detours that God placed in our lives. I know I have a few from the last few years, both big bangs and small seeming detours. Just recently, before celebrating the New Year with some friends to watch the festivities in New York in the comfort of the indoors, my husband and I stopped for a vigil for peace at the Trenton Quaker house. He had read about the vigil in the information about Patriot Week in Trenton, hidden among the listings for battle reenactments and other festivities. As we walked into the dark, sparse meeting room at the Quaker house, each of us were given a small flameless LED candle to hold.

Quakers worship a little differently than most. At this peace vigil, there was no scripture read or hymns sung or sermon preached. Every once in a while, one of us would speak into the darkness – some spoke about seeking peace in the wider world, and some about seeking peach within ourselves. But most of time was spent in silence, in the small light of the flickering LED candles. In those times of silence, I prayed for the peace of the city right outside the door, which could be seen in the darkness outside the window of the Trenton Quaker house. A city that is shrouded in darkness, and can use all the light that it can get. A city that now my husband and I call home.

In 2011 as I finished up my seminary degree in St. Paul MN, I would never have guessed in a million years that the end of 2013 would find me in a three hundred year old Quaker meeting house in Trenton. Nor would I ever have imagined that in 2014 this Wisconsin girl would be looking forward to my second ordination anniversary while serving a fabulous church in central New Jersey. They may say that the devil is in the details, but I think I may safely saw that it is God that is in the detours.

But no matter where the dawning of 2014 finds you, whether on the main road you imagined, off the beaten path, seemingly lost on a detour, stuck in a rut or in the ditch, dawn will come and the light of risen Christ will shine upon you. For even the darkest night is dispelled with the rays of the rising sun.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, that light of hope in our lives. At Epiphany we rejoice that this light has exploded out to shine on all people, in all places and times. For in Jesus the light of God’s love has dawned upon us, to show us the way of peace. And in each of us that light burns brightly and will never be extinguished. And we will never be the same. Amen.

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